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Int’l schools market is “flourishing” – ISC report

A new report from educational consultants ISC Research suggests factors such as increasing diversity, a post-Covid surge and geopolitical events are leading to a flourishing international school sector. 

Western Asia, including the UAE, has reached almost 2 million students in international schools. Photo: Pexels

English being the primary learning language has also seen demand increase

Overall, the number of international schools around the world has increased by over 50% in the last 10 years – with the figure now at 13,190 – and a 53% rise in student enrolment to 6.5m. That is up from 12,853 schools in 2022.

The report, Why International Schools Keep Opening, examines the growth on a molecular level – especially in parts of Asia where the increase has been the most significant.

In South-Eastern Asia enrolments have grown by 23% over the last five years, with the number of schools in the sub-region increasing from 1,600 to 1,940.

For Tony Evans, head of international relations at Bishop’s Stortford College, the increase in number and the diffusion of international schools worldwide is an inevitable consequence of the factors highlighted by ISC – with parental aspiration, migration and geo-politics being the main drivers for both recruitment and development strategies”.

CEO of COBIS, Colin Bell, said the focus on diversity among student bodies was an “incredibly important” facet to the success of international schools.

“In terms of ability, schools aren’t just for the high-performing academic students. Some schools may have a certain selection process, but my belief is that schools should also attract students from all types of different academic backgrounds and neurodiversities as well,” he said, speaking to The PIE.

“As for admissions and marketing, it’s fundamental how schools promote themselves; what images they use of children, of teachers so that it does represent the diversity [in the schools],” he added.

According to the report, governments in developing countries are supporting the expansion of these schools – and their access to families from abroad – “as a solution to quickly improving K-12 education offerings”. 

Those expatriate professional numbers are expanding in any case – to an increasing range of countries, the report says. 

“[There is] the ability of more families to afford private schooling… in many countries of Asia, education is considered a priority investment by many families who can afford it,” it states. 

English being the primary learning language has also seen demand increase, and the lack of “alternative education options that offer globally recognised qualifications”. 

“We are noticing a changing trend in employer benefit packages, with more parents expected to assume direct or partial responsibility for their child’s education costs. The number of self-payers has increased by about 15% over the past three years,” said Julia Love, director of admissions at the International School of Kuala Lumpur

“Although self-paying prospective families are more fee-conscious they remain focused on the value a high-quality international education can offer their child,” she continued. 

“The number of self-payers has increased by about 15% over the past three years”

She also talked about the relaxation of the border restrictions in recent months, which has resulted in a hefty rebound – something Evans agrees was much-needed after seeing the impact rules such as China’s zero-tolerance policy on Covid had. 

“It had a disastrous impact on the number of expat students and staff at the plethora of international schools across China who were repatriated, and have not returned.

“Many of these schools, leading UK independent schools among them, will be forced to radically downsize or close as a result,” he recounted. 

While Eastern Asia’s five-year growth has still seen a 16% marker, restrictions are still having an impact on continued expansion – host nation children attending international schools in China has been severely limited, and has slightly stagnated enrolment as a result. 

Despite these problems, Katie Rigney-Zimmerman, admissions and marketing director at Saigon South International School in Vietnam said that expats are returning to the region.

“More are coming from regional locations, such as a Bosch employee from India, or an Intel employee from the Philippines, rather than from the US or Europe,” said Rigney-Zimmerman.

She also mentioned British Independent Schools are starting to set up shop, with “strong visibility”. 

“This is helping to raise the conversations about school choices with many families. These schools are changing admissions marketing – for all international schools,” she said.

“The Middle East and UAE in particular [have seen] a record number of international schools opening their doors”

Western Asia, including the Middle East, nevertheless continues to be the “leading subregion” in terms of enrolment in international schools – with 1.9m attending schools in Western Asia. The number of schools having been pushed over the 2,000 mark in the last five years. 

“The Middle East and UAE in particular [have seen] a record number of international schools opening their doors (or will be opening imminently) since the early part of 2022, when most Covid restrictions were lifted and expats returned in their droves,” Evans noted. 

The white paper points to a “significant increase” in expats from China, Russia and Ukraine especially, as well as South and Southeast Asia, reasons cited included a result of crisis, educational restrictions in their own countries or employment reasons.

Despite this, Bell noted that the raft of new schools that are opening up may not just be high-end, premium schools, but will “give way to more affordable fee structures”, allowing more students access to the international school experience.  

As such, the report touched on how the market has already seen some segmenting by fee level. Increased demand by people with “different financial means” has led to further diversification of the student body. The International School of Kuala Lumpur, according to Love, now hosts over 70 nationalities in its halls. 

“The increasing diversity of our student body is also reflected in parent interest in the diversity of our teachers. Previously questions focused on North America, whereas now we are getting more questions from parents who value a diverse faculty,” she added. 

Bell did warn that while the rate at which international schools opening spells good things for the sector, these schools need to make sure that quality assurance is part of their portfolio when they open.

“The sector is growing – that’s one thing – but is it growth with quality? That’s what regulators would be concerned with.

“COBIS is supporting a lot of schools in the Middle East and Asia that are either about to set up, and talking to us about how we can do the external validation – it’s important to reassure families, students and parents, but also regulators like Ministry of Education.

“If parents are going to pay those fees, they want a decent school that’s going to look after you and whose core purpose is safeguarding child protection and helping students thrive,” he added.

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